Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders share the same PR problem. It’s the dreaded “Pundit’s Parenthetical Phrase.” It isn’t particularly unique, and there’s little they can do about it except for one thing: attacking the problem head-on aggressively.
THE SYMPTOMS: The dilemma can be observed as a pattern rather than as episodic events. It arises when political pundits, when asked to comment about a candidate, use the same herd description literally as a parenthetical phrase over and over again, although it doesn’t always show up between parentheses or set off by commas. For Donald Trump, the phrase is, “But of course it’s only a matter of time until he drops out.” There are two slight variations on that theme: “He’ll start slipping in the polls soon,” and “But of course he’ll never be the nominee.” For Bernie Sanders, there is one consistent phrase: “But he’ll never be the nominee.” Reporters and pundits virtually always associate those phrases with the candidates, whether in print or broadcast or digitally. In fact, the problem can be described with another “P” word: “permanent.” Once the parenthetical phrase is used for a certain period of time, it becomes institutionalized, and is used as part of the way the candidate is described virtually incessantly.
THE SYMPTOMS ARE OBVIOUS, BUT THE LEGITIMACY IS NEVER QUESTIONED. Despite the fact that Trump has held on to his fairly significant lead in basically every poll taken for the past few months, the pundits never doubt the “fact” that he will begin to lose his standing in the race for the nomination. They may be right, but they do not allow even for the prospect that they are wrong. Their parenthetical phrase has become sacrosanct, treated as an a priori truth. When it comes to Sanders, his parenthetical phrase (“he’ll never get the nomination”) is repeated even though his numbers keep improving, his opponent Hilary Clinton’s numbers keep deteriorating, and he shows up in (or right near) the leadership position in key upcoming primaries. Why doesn’t anybody say, “but maybe he can get the nomination”? He draws 20,000 people to rallies time and again, but nobody suggests, “Hey! Maybe this growing strength can take him to the nomination.” Why not? Because questioning a Pundit’s Parenthetical Phrase after it has become institutionalized just isn’t done. It’s as simple as that.
THERE IS NO CURE – JUST DEATH. The Pundit’s Parenthetical Phrase doesn’t just go away. It either dies or it lives on permanently associated with the victim forever. It can die in one of two ways. One way: It can be proven false. Of course, if either Trump or Sanders actually get the nomination, the phrase will obviously have been proven wrong, and it will stop being used. The pundits and reporters who have used the phrase will shrug it off, sometimes nonchalantly, virtually without any recognition, or with some appropriate eulogy: “Boy, that was a surprise … and now in other news ….” If it doesn’t die because it’s been proven false, it can die in a second way, by being murdered.
HOW TO MURDER A PARENTHETICAL PHRASE. A large company for which I worked had to declare Chapter 11 during a catastrophic time for its industry. The company was NVR, which was the nation’s largest homebuilder at the time. In the early 1990’s, in the wake of the S&L debacle, if you were in the real estate business, you were in deep trouble. Chapter 11 became SOP for many in the industry. Once the company filed for Chapter 11, The Washington Post created a parenthetical phrase that they associated with the company non-stop, even after the company made a dramatically successful exit from Chapter 11: NVR was always described as “the formerly bankrupt company.” This was particularly unfair because when people buy a house the issue of the financial health of the builder is a significant factor, and The Post’s use of the phrase was negatively impacting the company’s sales. The parenthetical phrase just had to be killed. And I was the murderer.
It was nasty, but I did it the only way I knew how. This was before emails. I faxed a note to the reporter and several of the top people at The Post, asking one simple question: “How long did it take for The Post to stop characterizing publisher Katherine Graham as “the widow of the former publisher who killed himself”? There were two responses. One was immediate, and it came from the reporter: “Poretz, that was beyond the pale.” The reporter was right – it was a pretty disgusting tactic. But the second response came without comment: the paper simply dropped the phrase. When parenthetical phrases are killed like that, there is no eulogy. They just stop being used.
IN SHORT: Sometimes, the Pundit’s Parenthetical Phrase proves to be accurate. But sometimes the phrase helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Personally, I do not want the leader of my nation to be determined by the constant repetition of a concept that is no more than a prediction/observation but treated as “the truth” well before it has been proven to be factual. My advice to Trump and Sanders: go out ASAP and murder the phrase by attacking those who use it again and again. It won’t make friends for them with the news media, but sometimes that is a sacrifice worth taking.